The life and works of a great educator| June 2012
An acrid cloud of smoke diffused over the city square while triumphant Nazi soldiers looked on. An effigy of Maria Montessori lay burning, the books she had authored charring nearby. It was the 1930s, and the city was Berlin, or Vienna – it didn’t matter – the scene was enacted the same in both former metropolises of culture.
But the fire was too little, and too late. A different sort of blaze had been kindled decades earlier, one no totalitarian government could quench. And the real Maria Montessori was safe in Holland, busy fanning the flames of this stronger fire even as Nazi boots ground out the last embers of their conflagration.
Who was this woman who Mussolini first pledged to support but later ousted from her homeland, closing all Montessori schools in Italy by 1934? Whose ideas Hitler’s henchmen apparently trembled to contemplate? Fascist mentality demanded puppet-like obeisance; that a person should be counted a free spirit and trained to independent thought and action was anathema. Yet that was exactly the kind of human being Maria Montessori had been educating.
The latest object of Nazi denunciation, Montessori was not the first to carry the torch – the doctor-cum-educator had herself been influenced by an interesting mix of forces. The scientist in her had fed at the hands of French researchers Itard and Seguin, who had lately done ground-breaking work with mentally disabled and deaf children; while the educationist Friedrich Froebel’s ideas, not yet a century old, had kindled her interest in the potential of every child.
“Whoever touches the life of the child touches the most sensitive point of a whole which has roots in the most distant past and climbs toward the infinite future.”
Early life and career
External influences aside, Maria already had an aura of independence as a child. Most girls grew up to marriage and family; careers were for men. Against the wishes of her father (but with encouragement from a like-minded mother), she went on from primary school to a secondary school for boys, where she studied mathematics; took a science and mathematics course at the University of Rome; then beat her way through a tangle of resistance into medical school. Montessori took her diploma as doctor of medicine in 1896 – a radical break in convention for a woman of late 19th-century Italy.
The ‘woman of late 19th-century Italy’ was, in fact, a matter of burning concern to Maria, a devout Catholic whose social interests were not confined to the field of medicine. This ‘woman’ had few rights, worked gruelling hours for inferior pay, and had no political voice. The downtrodden, too, captured Montessori's attention as she home-visited patients in Rome, and she often pondered how their deprivation might be mitigated. Fresh out of school and in the midst of launching a medical practice, Maria was found in European cities from Berlin to Genoa, campaigning for the rights of women and the poor.
From her first speech at a feminist conference in Berlin, the press took notice. Maria Montessori was an attractive young woman with magnetic personal charisma, galvanized by her passion for the betterment of humanity. International radars registered the rising star, and requests for lectures began to come her way.
The variety of pursuits Montessori undertook in those early years – researcher, lecturer, women’s advocate – included an opportunity to work with children with disabilities. Thought to be unteachable, they were routinely consigned to institutions, shut up with nothing to occupy them. But through the use of sensory materials, Maria found they could learn through sight, sound, touch and smell. In this way they came to achieve work on the academic level of ‘normal’ children. While the concept of learning through sensory stimulation seems natural enough today, it ran in the face of conventional schooling of the time. Children were sat at desks and expected to absorb the teacher’s ‘knowledge’ verbatim. No one encouraged or expected them to discover on their own. Failure to learn the presented lesson was marked up to laziness, and beatings were the standard ‘remedy’.
The turn of the century may have found Maria energetically pursuing her ideals, but her personal life was not without sorrow. A failed relationship resulted in the birth of a son, Mario. Unable to acknowledge him (such situations were socially unacceptable), she sent him to be raised by a foster family. (Later in life, billed as her nephew, Mario Montessori was to become his mother’s most devoted supporter and assistant. Only at Maria’s death was he openly acknowledged as her son.)
The years came and went; then it was 1907. Maria Montessori had become a doctor, and the first woman doctor in her country at that. Arduous studies were behind her and Maria enjoyed a well-established practice in Rome. But since when is professional security the aim of a woman who wants to change the world?
Maria Montessori, 1913
The Casa de Bambini
When the Housing Association of Rome refurbished apartment blocks in the San Lorenzo slums, they found repair costs soaring as vandalism by children left unattended in the street defaced the buildings. The Association decided to hire someone to supervise the youngsters during the day.
So the unlikely job of policing the tiny miscreants fell to Maria – perhaps because she had made her voice known through her lectures on matters concerning education and the resurrection of the culturally deprived. To Montessori, it seemed the perfect opportunity to extend her earlier experiments with mental deficients: her charges-to-be were impoverished, uneducated, visibly devoid of stimulation, but otherwise typical. In addition, childcare facilities in other tenements were to be modelled after this one.
Maria’s heart went out to the children – she knew the horror and vice of the foul quarters they had recently occupied. Now there was a chance for a fresh start in improved quarters. She set her hand to the challenge of regenerating the misfortunate lot, with an eye to helping their families and the tenement community as well. Enormously creative, she devised her own didactic materials for the children to work with, and provided child-size furniture for their room – a novelty that has revolutionized children’s environments since.
Physical set-up of her classroom considered, Maria didn’t stop there. Her Casa de Bambini (Children’s House) would have rules. She addressed the parents at an inaugural speech, making no bones about their responsibility in the project. The children must be sent to school punctually, clean and well-dressed; parents must not undermine the educational aims of the school; and each mother must consult weekly with the directress regarding her child’s progress. The communal aspect of this endeavour was extremely important to Maria: she would live with the families she served in the tenement, and her pupils’ parents must take ownership of the school. Teacher and parent must work toward the same end. Failure to cooperate in these matters would result in expulsion of the child until the parents’ ways were remedied.
It is a paradox that Montessori’s method has often been perceived as allowing children free reign to do as they wish. True, the San Lorenzo children chose from a variety of activities they were presented. (Maria hated suppression of children’s natural energies as was then common in classrooms: from her work with mental deficients, she had already intuited that bodily activity was key to intellectual growth.) But disorder and bad behaviour were complete strangers in any classroom of hers. The children, she reasoned, taught themselves life skills through the environment. She designed items and activities that were self-correcting – a child could figure out for himself where he had gone wrong. The teacher’s role was merely to facilitate this sort of learning. She must diligently watch over the environment, learn from the child, encourage good impulses and discourage destructive ones, but otherwise not interfere. A properly prepared environment made learning spontaneous and joyful, not teacher-driven. Yes, there was freedom, but it was a freedom within a structure that made the child secure.
Perhaps their Directress’s expectations of them had something to do with it, but within a few months the tenement children became self-disciplined, bright-eyed and interested, eager to explore the materials Montessori provided and quick to pick up concepts in maths, volume, size, and so forth. Visitors to the Casa were amazed to see the children, so recently roaming wild, now working in concentrated quiet, absorbed to a degree that they even refused offered sweets. They preferred real work (meal preparation and cleanup, pet care, and gardening for example) to ‘play’; and displayed a natural desire to keep their classroom orderly.
Montessori noted ‘sensitive periods’ in the children’s development, when they were especially receptive to certain types of learning. Children did not write before the age of six, or so it was thought. But when Maria’s four-year-olds begged to learn, she gave them cut-outs of the alphabet to play with. She included sets lined with sandpaper so they could feel the shapes. In less than three months, the children unexpectedly began to write – to the incredulity of not only their parents, but Montessori herself. The ability to read with understanding followed soon after. Of all the achievements of children in the Casa, reading and writing were the most astounding. They had quickly surpassed the literacy level of seven- and eight-year-olds in the public primary schools! Word spread, and the number of curious visitors increased. What magic was at work in the San Lorenzo nursery?
International reception of Maria Montessori's methods
Montessori was producing wonder-children, and the word spread quickly. Maria’s new way of educating children would transcend national, social, and religious barriers across the world in a stunningly short period. In 1907 the first Casa had opened. Two years later there were four, and Montessori had given the first of hundreds of training courses she would personally deliver to future directresses of Montessori schools. In Australia, Russia, and Argentina, schools introduced the Montessori system. An Englishman visited the Casa in 1912, and returned home to found the Montessori Society of the United Kingdom, involving educators up to the top levels of government. And so it went, spreading like wildfire through country after country.
Promoters of the new method arose in the United States, and in 1911 the first Montessori school was opened in New York by one of the pupils Montessori had taught in Rome. By 1913, 100 American schools used the Montessori name – some of them with little in common with her actual ideas. Montessori visited the United States in 1913 to a wildly enthusiastic reception. A second visit followed in 1915, where for several months a Montessori class at work could be viewed at the San Francisco World Exhibition.
Children playing in a Montessori school in the USA, 1921
The lightning dissemination of Montessori’s ideas made misinterpretations inevitable. Understandably, she was anxious that such distortions be stopped. She believed that her methods, arrived at as they were by scientific observation, must not be changed in any way. She insisted on personally training all teachers herself, and she kept exclusive control of production of the Montessori didactic apparatus. To her supporters in the United States, who had invested much time and money in promotion of her method, Montessori’s refusal to delegate may have felt like ingratitude.
Times changed, but Montessori’s basic method did not. After her initial successes at the Casa dei Bambini, her work tended to stagnate instead of blending with the best of evolving pedagogy. The American educational establishment viewed her system as too rigid, too focused on individual versus group work, and not allowing sufficiently for imaginative play. And so, with her return to Italy, the Montessori method passed from the American educational scene and was all but forgotten. Only after Montessori’s death would changes in the social climate revive interest in her ideas in the United States.
Montessori’s main claim to fame remained the Casa successes. The second half of her life was spent promoting her method and training teachers in it worldwide. Forced by Mussolini to leave Italy, by 1936 she had settled in Holland. There the Association Montessori Internationale was founded, and is still based today. During World War II, already aged 69, she took her work lecturing and training to India, where she found an eager interest in her ideas. She returned to Europe for a year after the war, then carried out another two-year stint in India.
Maria Montessori with her son Mario, George Arundale and Rukmini Devi in India, 1939
Besides globe-trotting, Montessori wrote and published throughout her life. After India, she continued attending conferences, lecturing and holding training courses, from Pakistan to Ireland, London to Florence. Three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize came to the great educationist in her final years. Honours always encouraged her, but never prompted her to rest on her achievements. She died in harness: speaking over business matters with her son Mario one hour, she was dead of a cerebral hemorrhage the next. She was eighty-one years old.
To view Maria Montessori’s labours merely in the light of an intellectual or scientific exercise would be to underestimate them. Her social concern ranged much wider, and it was in this context that she spent her energies improving the lot of children. Her prolific writings and recorded material from lecture notes of her audiences defy quick analysis. What is clear is that, despite strict limits on the use of her name and method, much that Montessori discovered with the children of San Lorenzo is common to children in any era. Friendly rooms with child-sized furniture, as well as activity-based learning, are universal. The way teachers view their pupils has been greatly influenced by her discoveries as well. Children should be respected and not have the adult world imposed on them; they learn spontaneously from birth; and their learning can be heightened through an appropriately prepared environment. Thus even seen in broad strokes, it is clear that Maria Montessori’s work and vision changed the landscape of childhood for the better, forever.
Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, by E. M. Standing. The New American Library Inc., 1957
Maria Montessori, A Biography, by Rita Kramer. Montessori International Publishing, 1976
Maria Montessori: The Italian Doctor Who Revolutionized the Educational Systems of the World, by Michael Pollard. Exley Publications, 1990
The Montessori Method, by Maria Montessori. Frederick A Stokes Company, 1912